The Glass Menagerie
Reviewed – 1st June 2019
“What the show does instead is to tease out the delicate nuances of each character and the generous humanity of the writing”
Directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr, this adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play comes with the baggage of taking on an all-time classic, but it does so with empathy and style.
Tom Wingfield (Michael Abubakar) is ‘starting to boil inside’. He feels stifled living in a small St. Louis apartment with his loving but controlling mother Amanda (Lesley Ewen) and his sister Laura (Naima Swaleh), who suffers from both crippling shyness and the after-effects of childhood illness. Tom works joylessly in a shoe warehouse to support the three of them while dreaming of adventure and travelling further afield – like his father, who abandoned the family 15 years previously. Amanda persuades Tom to invite a friend to dinner in the hope that this ‘gentleman caller’ will fall in love with her fragile daughter and save her from poverty, solitude and her dreamy remoteness.
The first half unfolds slowly, allowing plenty of time to fill in the characters of the three family members. There are flashes of humour amid an overwhelming sense of sadness and frustration. The second half introduces Jim O’Connor (Charlie Maher), the gentleman caller upon whom so much expectation rests, and the intensity goes up several gears. As the plot develops, so too do the performances. Subtle – and less subtle – transformations ensue.
The moments in which Jim and Laura begin to reveal their true selves are utterly heartrending and exquisitely judged. My only criticism is that part of this key scene, with the pair sat on the floor, was difficult to see from the section of the theatre in which I was sitting. That said, it would be impossible to make such an intimate exchange equally visible from every angle. And anyway, the acting was so assured that their conversation was compelling even when I couldn’t see their faces. The devastating vulnerability on display takes you aback.
The set – often dim and shadowy, in keeping with the memories of the narrator – brilliantly frames the action. Beyond the claustrophobic interior of the apartment, there’s the moonlit fire escape with views of the dancehall along the street and the promise of greater freedoms beyond. With these simple elements a whole world is evoked.
Wisely, this production doesn’t attempt to reinvent Williams’ work. With the sparkling dialogue and perfect pacing of the source material, it could hardly be improved upon. What the show does instead is to tease out the delicate nuances of each character and the generous humanity of the writing, exploring the various shades of the emotional truths implicit in every line. The result is deeply affecting.
Reviewed by Stephen Fall
Photography by Idil Sukan
The Glass Menagerie
Arcola Theatre until 13th July
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 22nd March 2019
“a hugely ambitious play that doesn’t quite succeed in its intentions”
In the 1930s, Dr Mary Barton and her husband, Dr Bertold Wiesner, founded one of the first clinics to treat infertility with donor insemination. Because the practice was new, there were no regulations regarding donor selection. Barton said she had a small pool of select donors, but thanks to DNA testing, we now know the majority of the 1,500 women who were treated by Barton were inseminated with Wiesner’s sperm.
Written by Maud Dromgoole and directed by Tatty Hennessy, Mary’s Babies imagines various intersecting lives of a handful of people who discover they share Wiesner’s DNA. There’s considerable skill in Dromgoole’s windows into lives that are rich, genuine, and occasionally touching. However, despite the creative team’s best efforts to maintain clarity, with just two actors multi-roling so many different characters with such abrupt alternation, a lot is lost in the shuffle.
Katy Stephens and Emma Fielding take on a total of thirty-nine different characters, although the play primarily revolves around five. Stephens and Fielding are strong performers (they admirably handled a technical difficulty which stopped the show midway), and Stephens in particular impresses with her vivid transformations. An ingenious set design (Anna Reid) that displays the names of the characters on a wall, which light up according to who is in each scene, is indispensable.
But even with first-rate multi-roling and displayed character names, the play can be difficult to follow. Hennessy’s choice of minimalism for an informationally dense piece, and Dromgoole’s choppy, short scenes with vague dialogue, leave large gaps for meaning to fall through. Entire scenes often hinge on one word that is too easily lost. I missed the word ‘eulogy’ in the opening monologue, so didn’t get why Stephens was reading off a script, thinking it couldn’t be possible she didn’t have the lines memorised. I missed the word ‘polydactyl’ in another scene, and was perplexed by the fuss about Stephens’ hand.
Additionally, the characters’ ages don’t transmit well. A reveal toward the end that two characters are twins doesn’t click; I spent the performance believing one was about ten years younger than the other. All of them, who are dating and planning/having children, seem to be in their thirties. Kieran, arguably the main character, comes off as early twenties. They jar with the maths, which says their age range is forty to eighty (the play takes place in 2007 and the clinic closed in 1967). It’s evident Dromgoole wanted to write younger characters. The play may have been stronger if it were set in the present, about a fictional artificial insemination scandal in the 1980s.
This is a hugely ambitious play that doesn’t quite succeed in its intentions. Too much visual and verbal information fails to communicate. The script seems better suited to film, which would solve a lot of its problems.
Reviewed by Addison Waite
Photography by Robert Workman
Jermyn Street Theatre until 13th April
Previously reviewed at this venue: